Leaving Iraq 2011: Or, Underrating the Utility of Force

One of the things that I’ve heard most frequently from the conservative side in the Iraq debates is that President Obama had the chance to keep American troops there, which is what most senior commanders and many diplomats wanted, but instead was in such a hurry to get out that no attempt was made to capitalize, or to use plans that were ready to go.  The President has repudiated these accusations more than once, perhaps most notably on August 9, 2014, after ordering that air strikes commence against Daesh. Specifically:

“Under the previous administration, we had turned over the country to a sovereign, democratically elected Iraqi government,” Obama said. “In order for us to maintain troops in Iraq, we needed the invitation of the Iraqi government and we needed assurances that our personnel would be immune from prosecution if, for example, they were protecting themselves and ended up getting in a firefight with Iraqis, that they wouldn’t be hauled before an Iraqi judicial system.

“And the Iraqi government, based on its political considerations, in part because Iraqis were tired of a U.S. occupation, declined to provide us those assurances,” Obama said. “And on that basis, we left. We had offered to leave additional troops. So when you hear people say, do you regret, Mr. President, not leaving more troops, that presupposes that I would have overridden this sovereign government that we had turned the keys back over to and said, you know what, you’re democratic, you’re sovereign, except if I decide that it’s good for you to keep 10,000 or 15,000 or 25,000 Marines in your country, you don’t have a choice, which would have kind of run contrary to the entire argument we were making about turning over the country back to Iraqis, an argument not just made by me, but made by the previous administration.

“So let’s just be clear: The reason that we did not have a follow-on force in Iraq was because the Iraqis were–a majority of Iraqis did not want U.S. troops there, and politically they could not pass the kind of laws that would be required to protect our troops in Iraq,” said Obama.

Now, you can read about the notorious Status of Forces Agreement, in outdated form (but with links to the documents), without necessarily getting the deeper details of the situation. However, when you do, it seems readily apparent that, while it is true that the argument over legal immunity was decisive, the way it went down speaks to a much more complex–and less complimentary narrative–than I had been aware of. iraq war endsThe signals being sent by the Obama administration, and unhappy convergence of campaign promises, senior military advice, internal Iraqi politics, and Iranian influence, really did set the stage for the complete removal of an American presence that, while it might not have prevented the raise of Daesh, certainly would have improved those odds.

The key article that I’ve found (and I’ll add others if you send me links) is by Dexter Filkins in The New Yorker on 28 April, 2014: “What We Left Behind.” It’s long, and detailed, and thought-provoking journalistic narrative of 2008 to 2014. How internal Iraqi alliances were brokered, particularly by the Iranians, how the Obama administration accepted that brokering, and how most people on the ground saw American presence as a steadying thing–is all laid out there.

My impression is, now that I’m a 2-hour expert on the subject (not counting the 3 years I listened to veterans discussing it), is that the President has learned one very important lesson about the utility of force–that it often doesn’t deliver what you want how you want–at the expense of another lesson–that it IS useful, at times. And a third lesson, that just because you disapprove of using sledgehammers to crack nuts, you don’t swear off cracking nuts completely. In other words, there are other dimensions to military power than just the kinetic, smash-everything kind. I wouldn’t necessarily call military power “soft,” but “soft” military power leading up to 2011 seems to have had many benefits, simply by being there. I’ve long been a fan of the President’s refusal to get drawn into another long, drawn-out war with no clear end state, but in 2011 it is very hard to escape the conclusion that an opportunity got away.

Well, if it was an opportunity. Ultimately, it will come down to whether or not internal Iraqi politics, sandwiched between America’s apathy and Iran’s activism, could have been prevailed upon to approve a U.S. presence with legal immunity. There’s no consensus on the issue, but, and I hate to agree with Max Boot below, when Bush wanted the first agreement done, he put forth the requisite effort. The jury is out on whether the Obama administration did the same.

Daesh Dilenda Est.

Further Reading:

Two crucial articles for picking apart different claims, raising stakes, taking sides:

Politico Magazine, “Is Iraq’s Mess America’s Fault? Twelve takes on who’s to blame for the country’s downward spiral,” 9 January, 2014.

Glenn Kessler, The Washington Post“The McCain-Graham claim that Iraq’s ‘main political blocs were supportive’ of keeping U.S. troops in Iraq,” 13 January, 2014.

Other articles of interest:

Daniel L. Davis, The National Interest“If America Had Kept 10,000 Troops in Iraq = No Islamic State?” from 30 October, 2015. More on this one in a moment.  Key quote:

But it is past time that we recognize and accept the fact that part of the blame for the rise of these insurgent groups has been – not the limited number of troops we kept on the ground – but on our sometimes blind reliance on military means to solve complex historical, cultural, and economic problems.

Patrick Brennan, National Review, “No, U.S. Troops Didn’t Have to Leave Iraq”, from 16 June, 2014.  Key quote:

It’s the White House itself that decided just 2–3,000 troops made sense, when the Defense Department and others were proposing more. Maliki was willing to accept a deal with U.S. forces if it was worth it to him — the problem was that the Obama administration wanted a small force so that it could say it had ended the war. Having a very small American force wasn’t worth the domestic political price Maliki would have to pay for supporting their presence.

Tony Karon, TIME, “Iraq’s Government, Not Obama, Called Time on the U.S. Troop Presence,” 21 October, 2011. A major counterpoint to Brennan’s column.

Colin H. Kahl, Politico, “No, Obama Didnt’ Lose Iraq: What the president’s critics get wrong,” 15 June 2014. An important article that gives context on the legal immunity requirement.

Iraq’s prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, told U.S. negotiators that he was willing to sign an executive memorandum of understanding that included these legal protections. But for any agreement to be binding under the Iraqi constitution, it had to be approved by the Iraqi parliament. This was the judgment of every senior administration lawyer and Maliki’s own legal adviser, and no senior U.S. military commander made the case that we should leave forces behind without these protections. Even Sen. John McCain, perhaps the administration’s harshest Iraq critic, admitted in a December 2011 speech discussing the withdrawal that the president’s demand for binding legal immunities “was a matter of vital importance.” Moreover, because the 2008 security agreement had been approved by the Iraqi parliament, it seemed both unrealistic and politically unsustainable to apply a lower standard this time around.

Tim Arango and Michael S. Schmidt, The New York Times, “Despite Difficult Talks, U.S. and Iraq Had Expected Some American Troops to Stay,” from 21 October, 2011.

Max Boot, The Wall Street Journal, “Obama’s Tragic Iraq Withdrawal,” 31 October, 2011. Everybody’s favorite cock-sure neocon weighs in; but, he makes solid points about the Obama administration’s aloofness toward the Maliki administration.

Glenn Greenwald, SALON, “About that Iraq withdrawal,” 21 October, 2011. Good leftie analysis, with a couple updates.

David Gergen and Daniel Katz, CNN, “Did Obama botch the endgame in Iraq?” on 27 June, 2014.

Thomas Bishop, Media Matters, “Rewriting History: Conservatives Attack Obama For Withdrawing All Troops From Iraq,” 10 August, 2014. Good list of articles.

David S. Cloud and Ned Parker, Los Angeles Times, “U.S. willing to leave 10,000 troops in Iraq past year’s end, officials say,” from 6 July, 2011.